W Kamau Bell: ‘If you don’t like me that’s fine just let me do my thing’

The comic talks about why he identifies as a socio-political comedian and the difficulty of knowing when to tell jokes about race

W Kamau Bell would like you to know that he is a socio-political comedian. Not a political comedian, not a comedian, and not a black comedian, although he is arguably all of those things as well.

If I say political comedian, then people think youre talking about you the Senate and Congress and whats going on in Washington DC, he said. If I say comedian, people automatically assume that youre a comedian who talks about how his wife wont listen to him and that dummy down at the mechanic who wouldnt fix his car. I think that a lot of times when other people make label, black comedians get labeled as black comedian, so I feel its like to me I would like to pick my own label, please. Thank you. His preferred label? Socio-political comedian.

In short, Bell wants people to know what theyre getting into before they walk into a club where hes performing, or tune into Politically Reactive, the podcast he hosts with Hari Kondabolu, or pick up his new album, Semi-Prominent Negro. Its like with music, he said. You dont go into a venue that just says hey we have music you say what kind of music it is. People tend to not say that with comedy, so Im doing my best to try to be a very specific type of comedian and if you dont like me thats fine just go somewhere else and let me do my thing.

Bells thing is a fiery brand of comedy that challenges listeners about their thoughts on race and privilege while also making them laugh, sometimes at their own prejudices. Bell doesnt want to just preach to a choir of true believers, though, and hes finding that his audiences expect more than that from him. When I stand up in front of groups of people who agree with me, I know I have to really step my game up, because I cant just sort of meet them where theyre at, I have to take them somewhere else, he said. They want you to challenge them and have good ideas.

His new album covers topics like his (white) wifes struggles to take care of their daughters hair, the differences between east and west coast liberalism,and how much his mother hated The Dukes of Hazzard. Shes someone who played a big part in developing Bells gimlet eye for inequality. He calls it the family business and famously jokes that thanks to his activist, college professor mother, in his house every month was Black History Month.

It was there, but I wasnt that interested in it, he said. Its like it was around too much for me to really think about. That changed as Bell began to develop his style of comedy when he was first starting out doing open mic nights in Chicago, where he was living at the time. He tried different styles, but found that he gravitated towards the socio-political side of the spectrum, returning again and again to subjects of race, inequality and political injustice. At some point, he just gave in to it. In standup, you cant hold to the material, he said. It just sort of pulls you in and you can either reject it or lean into it and I decided to lean in to it. I decided to do a full Sheryl Sandberg.

Since finding his niche, the world has given Bell a lot of material to work with. Photograph: Michael J Cargill

It took him a while to find his groove as a socio-political comedian, struggling to land jokes about race with predominately white audiences in Chicago. I would bring up something racist and I would really start to seize up, he said. He continued to struggle with jokes about race after he moved to San Francisco and started working the comedy scene there.

I struggled with the race stuff and I really wanted to do it, so in 2007 I just sort of doubled down on it, he said. I stopped really going to clubs for a little while and rented independent theaters and started doing this Ending Racism show, where I would end racism in about an hour with like PowerPoint and the whole gimmick of the show was that if you brought in a friend of a different race you got in two-for-one. After those shows, Bell was able to return to the clubs with his new material ready to go, proudly touting his new label of socio-political comedian.

Since finding his niche, the world has given Bell a lot of material to work with, and Bell has run with it on his TV show Totally Biased, his CNN series, his previous two comedy albums One Night Only and Face Full of Flour, The United Shades of America, in his work as ACLUs Ambassador of Racial Justice, and each time he gets up on stage.While Bells career has cycled through various iterations, a lot has changed in his personal life, too. He has a wife and two mixed-race daughters now and wants to use his platform to help make the world better for them. I felt that Ive never seen anybody onstage talk about mixed families in a way that was positive, he said. A lot of times interracial relationships and mixed-race kids are the brunt of the jokes on stage, so I felt like I wanted to really clear space for my family and, out of that, I really want to talk about things in the world that we can change for my daughters once they get old enough to take it over.

While Bell is trying to make the world a better place, unfortunately, the world just keeps giving him more material to work with on stage. I started doing the [Ending Racism] shows at colleges about a week and a half ago and I mentioned Colin Kaepernick just at one point, he said. I did the show two days ago its like the sixth show Ive done in 10 days and now theres a whole section on Colin Kaepernick, the Olympics and Jesse Owens. Its sort of naturally built into a whole thing.

While Bell is grateful that he has a lot of material to work with, he would also be happy to trade it all in for a better world. If peace dawns and reigns all over the world, Ill be happy to get a job at Starbucks, he said, laughing. You get benefits at 20 hours a week.

W Kamau Bells Semi-Prominent Negro is out now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/03/w-kamau-bell-interview-political-comedian-race

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